- Jim VandeHei
- Nov 14
How American politics went batshit crazy
There are numerous reasons American politics went off the rails, but there are at least six seminal events in the past 24 years that steered us here.
Sound smart: Politics is growing more personal, polarized and pugnacious. This dynamic is particularly acute on the right. This will likely get worse before it gets better as the trends outlined below continue unabated.
Reproduced from a Pew Research Political Polarization report; Graphic: Axios Visuals
- Newt Gingrich, in the early 1990s, weaponized warfare politics in a methodical and sustained way. In tactics and rhetoric, Gingrich ushered in a good-versus-evil style that persists today.
- Fox News, created in 1996, televised and monetized this hard-edged combat politics. This created the template for MSNBC to do the same on the left, giving both sides a place to fuel and fund rage 24/7. CNN soon went all politics, all day, making governance a show in need of drama.
- Facebook and later Twitter, both products of the post-2000 Internet revolution, socialized rage and argument. Now every nut with an opinion could find fans and followers to cheer/egg him or her on. This happened as the middle in politics was officially purged from Congress.
- John McCain picking Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, celebritized rage politics. Until that moment, Republicans typically picked conventional, next-in-line candidates. Palin, made for cable and social media, was the precursor to Trump.
- Facebook, starting in 2015 with command of so much of most voters' time and attention, algorithm-ized rage. The more emotion you felt and sought, the more the news-feed machine pumped at you. With no one looking, fake news was born and metastasizing.
- Twitter + Trump, starting in 2016, habitualized and radicalized the moment-by-moment rage and reaction of politicians, voters and the media. This created more froth and more fog and resulted in a spike of people who don't believe real news, much less the fake news pulsing through the system.
Now all of this has been institutionalized. No wonder people don't trust, like or believe politicians — or often each other.
Fun fact: A Pew poll on partisanship found Republicans and Democrats no longer even want to live near each other.
- 75% of conservatives want to live where "houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away."
- 75% percent of liberals want to live where "houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance."
Go deeper: This 2016 piece in The Atlantic smartly offers other causes of dysfunctional politics/governance.